"Honky-Tonk Milk" - Rupert Fike
- Run get your father. His dinner’s going cold.
I am maybe eight, dispatched to “the joint”
up at the corner, a job I know well,
one of his buzzed buddies, as usual, hoisting
me to a stool, the shiny red seat where
I can see the barman’s long stained apron.
A drink for me is proposed, seconded,
milk produced from somewhere, quite suspect,
already warming in its just-washed mug.
The milk sits becalmed, contaminated
by the glass whose life’s work is to hold beer,
and there is so much of it, topped off
by the barman who surely has no kids.
The talking goes on. I stare at the milk,
now mine, an unwanted social fate.
His friends keep the strong-breath questions coming -
do I have girlfriends and how many?
Any answer I give is well received.
The pin-ball machine makes modern noises
over in the corner, begging for quarters.
I want to play but too shy to ask.
My mother is waiting. The milk is waiting.
My father is talking to somebody else,
and now my own food is going cold
in the quiet light of home at the table
where I am fed, where I want to be.
I put my lips to the glass for one sip.
It’s awful. I manage a Mmmmmm. They cheer.
Atlanta in the 1950s was like a collection of small towns, each with its own little grocer, drug store and sometimes a bar. I like to refer to this as my “Dickensian” chore, running to tell my father that dinner was ready. The bar is still there, barely changed - Moe’s and Joe’s. Now though it’s mostly home to Emory students and hipsters basking in some imagined retro-land. I never go there. This poem too grew from positive reactions to my stories of having to “have a drink” with my father’s buddies when I really did not want to. It’s kind of an end to our childhood when we first do something just to make another person feel good. - Rupert Fike